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Vanderbilt expert: Tennessee legislative coup could benefit Williams in long run

Voters in Tennessee House Speaker Kent Williams’ district could continue to support and re-elect the Elizabethton representative – even if he switches parties – says Vanderbilt University political scientist Christian Grose.

The surprise coup in the Tennessee legislature happened Jan. 13 when the Republican Williams and 49 Democratic lawmakers voted for Williams for speaker. The GOP representatives had been planning to elect GOP Majority Leader Jason Mumpower to the top post and thought Williams would go along with their idea. Some Republican Party leaders are now criticizing Williams and calling for his ouster.

Grose, an assistant professor of political science at Vanderbilt, has studied examples of party-switching in states such as Georgia, North Carolina and Texas.

“My research has found that state legislators who switched into the minority party generally did worse in subsequent elections,” Grose said. “However, lawmakers who switched to the majority party to garner leadership positions, as Williams has done, were often rewarded at the ballot box following their apostasy toward their initial party.”

Grose noted that Williams’ case is unique, making it difficult to predict what might happen in 2010. “If past cases are any guide, however, Williams could do better than many in the GOP might expect, even if he runs again under a different party label,” Grose said.

The American Review of Politics published Grose’s article “Is It Better to Join the Majority? The Electoral Effects of Party Switching by Southern State Legislators” in spring/summer 2004. He also co-authored “The Electoral Consequences of Party Switching by Incumbent Members of Congress, 1947-2000” in the February 2003 issue of Legislative Studies Quarterly.

Media contact: Ann Marie Deer Owens, 615-322-NEWS